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Preemptive grief

Updated: Apr 8

Silly sadness, anxiety, or a means of living and loving more fully?

I have a 10-month-old kitten who I named Sayang — this means “love,” “sweetheart,” or “darling” in the Malay language. I adopted her from a shelter when she was four months old. I have more than 200 photos and videos of her on my iPhone and my husband tells me I should delete them, or my phone will crash. I won’t.

I love my cat so much it hurts

Every couple of weeks, I lie in bed and look at the visual records of my time with her — from photos taken on the very first day we brought her home when she was hiding under my desk, she’s a shy one, to the ones taken last week of her almost spilling out of a shoebox where she’d taken a nap. She’s grown so much. Sometimes I cry when I look at those photos.

Sayang is alive and well, she is perfect and so affectionate, and my body floods with oxytocin when she snuggles up with me and purrs away. I feel so lucky to have met her. When I’m doing one of my teary photo trawls, she is often sitting on my lap, looking up at me with puzzlement as I bawl my eyes out looking at images of her from the past.

I thought to myself: “Michele, you are such a sad fuck, and a weirdo! You’re crying over a relatively new, young pet who is alive and healthy, who probably has at least 10 years of life ahead of her. Why don’t just be happy and enjoy the time you have with her?” (“But you never know! Anything can happen,” says another inner voice.)

Then I came across a Reddit forum where many other cat owners talked about doing the same thing. I saw thread titles like: “I love my cat so much it makes me cry all the time,” “I love my cat so much it hurts,” “I cry just thinking about the day I’ll lose my cat.”

Anticipatory grief

On one of these forums, I came across the term “preemptive sadness,” more commonly referred to by psychologists as preparatory grief or anticipatory grief. This type of seemingly unnecessary and silly sadness, they say, is a distress response to the impending death of a loved one. “It’s the experience of knowing that a change is coming, and starting to experience bereavement in the face of that,” says Allison Werner-Lin, PhD, LCSW, and associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice in Philadelphia.

I experience anticipatory grief a lot. I’m sure my past diagnosis of major clinical depression and current diagnosis of mixed anxiety-depressive disorder contributes to the frequency of these feelings.

The first time I felt it was when I was around six years old. My parents went out for the evening for a wedding celebration and told me they’d be back around 10 p.m. By 11 p.m., I started panicking. I remember kneeling on the couch and praying, asking God to please not let them die. I was convinced that they had gotten into a car accident on the way home and had been killed instantaneously. And funnily enough — even though there were many things my parents did or didn’t do which I detested — at that moment, they seemed faultless, and I loved them more than ever. Almost unconditionally. I remember being as hyperalert as a dog, catching the sound of every car that drove past our window, because I was hoping against all hope that it was them pulling into the garage. They returned home after midnight.

This too will pass

Anticipatory grief isn’t just limited to people or pets. When I was 14, I went on holiday with my parents, my sister, my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and my cousins who were a few years older than me. We went to New Zealand and stayed at my Aunt Molly’s farm in Rotorua. The property belonged to her wealthy Taiwanese husband (nobody knew what he did for a living, some members of our family suspected criminal activities), and they had two sons. Auntie Molly had left Singapore — where the rest of us are from — many years ago, and this was the first time I was meeting her and her family. Her home in New Zealand was a beautiful place with acres and acres of land, rolling hills, sheep, horses and cows, a geyser lake, a crater, and forests.

Coming from the densely packed city of Singapore, I had never seen so much space in my life. My aunt’s house was huge, with long corridors and many rooms. It was bright and cozy, with a sprawling rose garden in the backyard. In this farm, the days were cool, crisp, and clear, with days of sunshine, blue skies and wispy clouds. Us youngsters were free to roam through the hills, swim in the lake, walk down and up the crater, pet the animals in their pens, and go for walks in the forests. In the evenings, we all ate delicious meals then sat in front of the fireplace playing Pictionary and charades.

I menstruated for the first time at the farm. The day after my period came, I laid in bed in the afternoon. I was alone and became aware of the sunlight streaming in through the window behind the bed. It felt like light from a different time, a different dimension. I looked out of the window at the rose bushes and felt assaulted by their beauty — the richness of the flowers’ reds, pinks, and yellows, and the silkiness of their petals, some of which were already curling at the edges. I inhaled the woody scent of the farmhouse and the wool carpets, and I burst into tears. I cried and cried, and at first felt confused about the cause of my outburst. Then I realized why I was crying — because I knew all this would be gone soon, or rather I would gone from it all. “You can always come back and visit,” said a small voice within but I knew it would not be the same. Because nothing ever stays the same and I was only just becoming aware of this reality at that moment in time. I might return some day, but we won’t all be together, the light and the roses will most certainly be altered, and I will already be a different person.

My aunt, her family, and the farm did indeed disappear from my life and from my family’s collective consciousness. My aunt used to write my grandmother a letter every month, but then the letters stopped coming. My mother tried calling her but her line was disconnected. Many years later when Facebook came on the scene, we tried looking for them but it seemed they had fallen off the face of the earth. I don’t know why we didn’t try any harder.

Maybe don’t snap out of it

“My boy is almost 2.5 and the thought that, some day, he’ll be gone fills me with sheer terror,” wrote Stinky­­_Cat_Toes on Reddit. I understand how he feels. When you are aware that you are loving someone, something, or someplace in that rare way that enables you to see only the beauty and the good in them, but none of the ugliness, then the reality of their impermanence hits you hard.

“Don’t get too caught up in the dark stuff. It sounds like you are mourning him already and he’s still with you. Don’t waste it by feeling sad or worrying. There will be time to mourn later,” wrote a Reddit member in response.

I appreciate the pep talk from this user, but I don’t think that feeling sad or anxious about losing a loved one is a waste of time. It is only in fully grasping the temporariness of their physical presence that we learn how to appreciate them, and to love them more fully and well. Because you never know! Anything can happen — tomorrow, or in an hour, or a minute, from now.

The thing about pets is that we know their lifespan is much shorter than ours (most of the time), and because of this, our awareness of their impermanence is magnified. Perhaps the anticipatory grief that comes with having a pet is a good reminder that all that is beloved to us — including our parents, spouses, children, friends, homes, and even our own health, wealth, mobility, and talents — will eventually be taken away from us in one way or another. Terror indeed! As another Reddit member commented, “Grief is the price we pay for love.”

Perhaps rather than chastising myself for being a sap over the inevitable, future loss of my dear cat, I can be grateful that I know how very precious our time together is because of its limitedness. And perhaps I would be wise to apply this awareness to all my other relationships and all other aspects of my life.

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